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Coal magnate Blankenship sentenced as industry's election season profile grows


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Coal magnate Blankenship sentenced as industry's election season profile grows

Sixyears after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine claimed the lives of29 miners in West Virginia, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship wassentenced this week to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine following aninvestigation into the disaster.

Thesentence, a result ofhis conviction on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safetylaws, received mixed responses from federal officials and those impacted by themine disaster.

UnitedMine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said it was "outrageous"that the maximum sentence Blankenship faced was a year. He pointed to "52people killed at Massey mines while he was CEO," which includes other minedisasters aside from Upper Big Branch.

"Althoughthis sentence will not begin to make him atone for his crimes, there is ahigher court he will answer to someday, and I have complete faith that thejustice he receives there will be more than adequate," Roberts said.

Blankenship'sdefense team wasted no time in filing a notice of appeal the next day after a series of possible avenuestowards overturning the case — a challenge that promises to be a lengthy and drawn out process.

Despitethe sentencing, this week did deliver some good news for Blankenship with thecourt decidingagainst Alpha Natural ResourcesInc. in the company's appeal for $27.8 million in restitution forcosts incurred as a result of the investigation.

Stillabout seven months away, Election Day is already showing signs of having aheavy coal focus in those states most dependent on the industry, including thebattleground state ofOhio. While always a relevant issue thanks to the state's Northern Appalachianmines, coal has taken on new political life following from Democratic frontrunnerHillary Clinton regarding the possible closure of mines in the months and yearsahead.

"Eightyears ago Hillary Clinton ran as a defender of coal and now she's talking aboutit in the past tense and frankly her comments and her remarks over the last sixmonths are things that are going to continue to be damaging to Democraticcandidates — not just her, but down ticket candidates that support her as well,"said Brittany Warner, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party.

Thenation's Western producers continued to struggle this week as the weight ofrecent layoffs hit the political landscape in states like Wyoming whereRepublican Gov. Matt Mead attemptedto ease concerns by dispatching a "rapid response team" to affectedareas.

Withthe state's single U.S. House seat up for grabs this November, the stability ofWyoming's coal sector took on new importanceas candidates from both sides of the aisle took turns defending the industryand what could be done to save it and the tax revenues it provides.

However,one potential option for recovery took a hit this week with the announcementthat the Gateway Pacific Terminal project in Washington had its environmental review untila decision could be reached by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding itslegality. The move pushed back the potential start date for the project andwith it, a proposed export option for Wyoming and Montana coal to the Asianmarket.

Hopingto avoid any such delays with another proposed West Coast coal terminal, Utahannounced it will hire a financial consultantto oversee the state's participation in an export project in Oakland, Calif.Utah recently passed a financing package that will more than $50 million in statefunds to the project.

Elsewhereout west, mining interests and the nation's leading coal producer this weekfired back againstenvironmental groups suing over federal coal leases, claiming that the groupscannot prove injury from alleged failure by the government to considerclimate-change impacts in approving the leases.

Continuingthe industry's consolidation and restructuring, and bothcompleted thesales of some oftheir coal properties, while SunCoke Energy Inc. moved to divest substantiallyall of its remainingcoal assets in a deal with RevelationEnergy LLC that was called an "attractive exit" by FBR& Co.

CONSOL'sdeal, worth $420 million, cleared the way for further corporate reorganizationwith the retirementof Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer James Grech.

Stillworking to avoid a potential default, ForesightEnergy LP again pushed back negotiations with the trustee of its 7.875% senior notesdue 2021 this week. The company also won approval from the U.S. Mine Safety andHealth Administration to seal its troubledDeer Run mine in Illinois.

Future events

American Coal Council: The ACC will hosta coal Q&A on "The Effects of Volatility on the Natural Gas Markets … andImplications for Coal" at 2 p.m. ET on April 14.

Center for Strategic andInternational Studies:The CSIS will host a forum,"U.S. Energy Policy in the 2016 Elections: Incremental orTransformational?" at 8:30 a.m. ET April 26 at its headquarters inWashington, D.C.